Male–female income disparity: What is fair?

December 3, 2011

Political Theory


For quite some time now, the United States has been known to have a gender gap in earnings, that is, men make more money than women, whether they hold the same position or not.  Using data from the United States Census Bureau, the 2009 (most recent available) median income for men was $47,127 for men, compared to $36,278 for women.  This leaves a ratio of .77 men-to-women earnings.  While this data does not show that men make the more money than women in the same position, it can be generalized to say that men are likely to be more financially well-off then women.  And while the gap is closing, from 60.2% in 1980 to 71.6% in 1990 to 77.0%, the rate at which the gap is closing is slowing down (United States Census Bureau).

Explaining The Gender Pay Gap

According to a book by Alice Eagly, Through The Labyrinth, this large gap in wages between men and women can partially be explained due to differences in education, hours worked, work experience, and occupation.  There is also an unexplained variable that I will elaborate on later.  Even after accounting for  ” similar demographic characteristics, family situations, work hours, and work experience”, women will only make 81.5% of what men will make.  That is to say when a man makes $100,000 a year, a women in the same city with the same education doing the same job will only make $81,500.  The rest of this gender pay gap, 18.5%, is unexplained and unaccounted for by the United States Census Bureau.

Sources of The Unexplained Gender Gap

While the government does not formal explain where the 18.5% of unaccounted gender income disparity comes from, others have their own theories.  Some blame occupational segregation, which is where some jobs and industries are predominantly ran by men, such as truck driving.  Thus it can be harder for women to enter these job markets, and when they do, they are discriminated against and paid less.  Another form of job stereo typing is the idea of “Pink Collar” jobs, which are jobs that usually done by women such as a maid, nurse or other jobs that could possibly be devalued by men and the rest of society.  Finally, in the book called, Women Don’t Ask: Negoiation and the Gender Divide, it was found that women were eight times less likely than men to negotiate starting salaries when graduating business school (MBA).  Linda Babcock, the author of the aforementioned book also said the following,

 In surveys, more than twice as many women than men said they felt “a great deal of apprehension” about negotiating.

Babcock also found that Men usually obtained higher returns when they negotiated with potential employers than did women when they negotiated with employers.

What Would Rawls Say?

In my opinion, the philosopher John Rawls would most likely be appalled by the income disparity between men and women, citing a popular line “Justice as Fairness” from his famous book, A Theory of Justice.  Rawl’s second principle of justice could most effectively be applied to this topic because women have an unfair and unequal opportunity in the workplace, which is an exact violation of his second principle of justice which is:

Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that (a) they are to be of the greatest benefit to the least-advantaged members of society (the difference principle) and (b) offices and positions must be open to everyone under conditions of fair equality of opportunity.

(Rawls, 1971, p.303; revised edition, p. 47)

The only case where Rawls would accept the income disparity between men and women is where the inequalities for women (of the greatest disadvantage) would actually benefit them.  An example of this would be the maternity leave and flexibility that some jobs offer women to take time off to care for their family.  It offers disadvantaged women a non-monetary way be compensated and levels the playing field against men.  This example could be used as a consequence as to why Rawls may indeed be ok with the income gap.  Although, if it were proved that women do not receive the greatest benefit from these economic inequalities, then it could be said that Rawls’ theory would be inapplicable to this situation and/or go against it.

While it may seem unfair (and unequal) that men will make more than women under the same conditions, is the gender income gap an application of Rawl’s second principle of justice?  If not, what condition would need to be met to make it so?

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2 Comments on “Male–female income disparity: What is fair?”

  1. maryblee Says:

    If you consider maternity leave to be a social and/or economic inequality, which it certainly can be, then yes, you could justify it under Rawls’ second principle. However, maternity leave is not the reason for the startling income disparities between men and women, it plays a minor role, if any, in a women’s income, as not all women take it, and those that do are generally on paid leave. Therefore, justifying the income disparity using Rawls is in complete opposition to how Rawls would actually perceive this situation. Not only are social and economic inequalities between the genders not of the most benefit of the least-advantaged (women), offices and positions are not equally open to both genders, as the author stated above. Neither clause of the second principle is being fulfilled.

  2. Phil O'Donnell Says:

    It should be noted, as is said in the post, that the statistics provided don’t serve to evidence the contention that females make less money than males when employed in the same position. The reality is that studies and evidence of this nature are so rare due to the fact that there are few professions where men and women work at a near equal level, for example there are far more male CEOs then female CEOs (obviously the rightness or wrongness of this is another debate). If people actually want to change this disparity, which we all know exists to some extent, then concrete evidence should be sought and made public, so the inequality can be widely condemned and subsequent action can be taken. Furthermore, I would argue that in an issue such as this, it really does depend on the type of employment and on the individuals involved in the job; for example many jobs are performance based and rely on commission, hence it perhaps is not an issue regarding male and female equality but rather one of meritocracy. That being said I do personally believe that there is a disparity between male and female wages, males being the benefactors, which of course is wrong and unjust.

    Another interesting issue which is connected this to the issues raised in the post is the question of employability and the possible gender inequality which pertains to that. Are men more employable than females in high paid job markets? If not, why are there so many more male CEOs or other executive positions? Is this why the average income is higher? Are ‘middle’ paid (such as teachers or office workers) jobs equal in terms of pay? This subsequently also raises the question concerning race and employability, similar to those with women, is there inequality concerning income and employability between the races? Are Whites and Asians look favorably on compared to African-Americans and Hispanics? How does Affirmative Action complicate this?

    Further to this, considering that it is noted in the post that the gender wage gap is seemingly closing, two issues arise. 1) Is this gap closing fast enough? Is there any opposition to this change? Is it closing too fast? 2) Will there ever be a time when females make more on average than males? What would be the implications of this?

    Another interesting point which is raised by the post is the concept of ‘pink collar jobs’. Contrastingly, are there actually job markets which seemingly exclude males to a point? For example, to name but a few; nursing, secretaries or child care (http://jobs.aol.com/articles/2010/07/27/where-women-work/). You may ask why would a male necessary want to work these jobs (such as a secretary), but by same token why would a women want to be a truck driver? Furthermore, similar to how society has deemed some jobs more suitable to females, has society also deemed some jobs more suitable to males, such as builders or even CEOs (many state that the issue of pregnancy is often viewed negatively by employers of executive position, hence more jobs are given to males).

    Another very interesting issue which is raised in the post is the idea of higher education levels. While female higher education levels have gone up in the last few decades, there are also roughly the same amounts of male graduates in the job market. Hence there is seemingly an equal number of equally qualified male and females in the job market, does society need to make a conscious decision to choose females over males to try and ‘even the playing field’ so to speak and forcibly place females in executive jobs by quotas, similar to affirmative action? Or could you argue that it already does so in many employment markets, especially in the public sector?

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